There are lots of compact crossovers -- and more all the time -- but there aren't many that are any fun to drive. At the same time, this popular category of vehicles also is not the place to turn if you're looking for good fuel economy -- when it comes to gas mileage, traditional mid-size sedans leave even the smallest SUVs in the dust.
The all-new CX-5 from Mazda attempts to address both those issues. It scores a solid hit with one but achieves only a near-success with the other.
A Mileage ChampThe CX-5 is powered by Mazda's new Skyactiv 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, which made its debut recently in the Mazda3. This engine is highly efficient, and in the CX-5 it delivers terrific gas mileage. With four-wheel drive, the EPA figures are 25/31 mpg (city/highway); that puts the CX-5 at the very top of the heap for AWD crossovers, besting even tiny 'utes like the Nissan Juke and the Mitsubishi Outlander Sport. Naturally, the front-wheel-drive CX-5 does even better, at 26/32 mpg with the automatic transmission and 26/35 mpg with the six-speed manual. With that kind of mileage, we hardly mind the fact that the aural quality of the direct-injected engine leaves something to be desired -- a typical downside to this technology.
What About the Fun?Slip behind the wheel of the CX-5, and you'll find that the driving position is very sports-sedan-like. The relationship between the driver, the windshield, the steering wheel, and the dead pedal reminded me of a BMW 3-series -- sounds ridiculous, but it's true.
I love the tight, precise steering, which is so much better than the crossover norm. What's all the more amazing is that this is an electrically assisted system -- which only proves that electric power assist is no excuse for lifeless, overboosted steering.
I also liked the firm chassis; body roll is notably absent, yet ride quality is not bad.
The CX-5 would walk away with the award for best-driving compact crossover, except for the fact that 155 horsepower and 150 pound-feet of torque are marginal for a four-wheel-drive crossover, even one as commendably svelte as this Mazda (3426 pounds). Off-the-line acceleration is adequate -- just. The bigger issue is that the six-speed box pretends not to hear the driver's calls for more speed. And when you encounter any upgrade, the automatic transmission is also loathe to give up on the higher gear until you've lost considerable momentum or have given the throttle a shove. There are no shift paddles, but the driver can take things into his own hands via a shift gate that enables manual up- and down-shfits -- although it follows BMW's strange logic of push-up-for-downshift and pull-back-for-upshift.
One possibly fix would be to get the available manual transmission (yes, there is one). Unfortunately, it can only be had with front-wheel drive, on the base trim level. So no leather, heated seats, moonroof, or backup camera. Here, then, is another example of a manufacturer offering a manual, then packaging it so as to virtually assure that no one buys it. One might have hoped for better from Mazda.
Out of the BoxWhereas the boxy Tribute was a style-free zone, the CX-5 exterior is all sinewy and handsome. A glance behind the rear seats, however, reveals the price you pay for those good looks. The tiny quarter windows afford little visibility, and the sloping roofline cuts into the cargo space.
When it comes to passenger space, however, we have no complaints. The rear seats are plenty roomy, and the both the front and rear perches are comfortable. The well-padded door armrests are a nice touch and the cabin is classed up with a smattering of shiny black trim and matte-finish metal. The switchgear is better laid out than most, although the (built-in) TomTom navigation unit is pretty rudimentary.
Covering Two BasesThe Tribute is on its way out and Mazda recently announced that it's also dropping the slightly larger CX-7, so the CX-5 effectively replaces both vehicles. Although the CX-7 was bigger outside, it didn't really have any more room inside, so this is a pretty logical move. (The three-row CX-9 remains as Mazda's medium-large SUV entry.)
The CX-5 is a very strong entry in a crowded field. Its gas mileage is exceptional, and it's quite rewarding to drive. But it would be even more so with a bit more power -- or, possibly, just with a reprogrammed automatic transmission. A vehicle with a chassis this good deserves a livelier powertrain, even at a cost of 1 or 2 mpg.